How do you prepare your school district for a population explosion? At Hardin County Schools in Kentucky, Superintendent Teresa Morgan is planning not to bring in hundreds of mobile units, as other districts in the region have done when making room for an enrollment boom’s influx of students.
Hardin County Schools already serves about 14,000 students in a mix of urban, suburban and rural communities, and a new manufacturing plant is expected to increase the local population by 24,000 to 37,000 residents over the next 10 to 15 years. “We’re trying to figure out how quickly we can build buildings—and have the bonding potential to do so,” says Morgan, who was recently named Kentucky’s Superintendent of the Year.
One reason the district stands out—and which helped Morgan and her predecessor win Superintendent of the Year—is its targeted, districtwide preschool program. When Kentucky equalized district pre-K funding in 1990, Hardin County “dove into making preschool a top priority.” It has since expanded from just two early education early centers to offering prekindergarten at all of its elementary schools.
Right now, the program is reserved for children with disabilities and those from low-income families. “We truly believe the earlier we can do inventions, the better we can serve those students for the rest of their educational career,” Morgan explains.
Morgan recently sat down with District Administration to discuss advances in project-based learning, students swabbing cellphones and the power of prayer.
1. DA: What are you most excited about as the school year gets underway?
Morgan: “Growth—we’re excited and maybe a little bit nervous. It will take a great deal of planning.
“We have some major advancements in our training. Our high schools and middle schools are going through training. At our elementary levels, all of our teachers have either gone through phonological awareness training or morphology training. We have everybody rowing in the same direction and we are seeing a lot of gains in our reading scores. Our next focus will of course be math and we’ve done a lot of additional training in the early grades.”
2. Why are your educators focused on project-based learning?
“We continue to work with our work community partners and they let us know, they will train the students, and they want students who can work together, who are critical thinkers, and who have problem-solving skills. They have indicated to us that skills that you would generally learn through project-based learning are really what they need their workforce coming with.
Last year, at one of our middle schools coming out of COVID, students did swabs around the building to see how much bacteria they could get to grow in a petri dish. They did a study of where the cleanest areas were in the school and where the dirtiest areas were. And interestingly enough, they found their cellphones were some of the dirtiest areas in the building, even compared to door knobs. They then reached out to another school to see if they had the same areas of cleanliness and the same areas that grew greater bacteria. That was the idea of the students—they were the ones who came up with questions that they wanted to answer.”
3. What keeps you up at night?
“The students we’re not reaching. We are in our first days of school and we have had several students start kindergarten this year and they have a lot of need. We have found some students who have not been to preschool, and that would’ve been a huge help in getting assistance for those families. The families said we just didn’t know about it when we asked them. We have such great support in this community, we want everybody to know about those services.
The other thing that keeps me up is how to keep pace with 20,000 people moving into your area. With us living near Ft. Knox, we always have an influx of people coming with the military, but this is a number we’ve never quite seen. Boone County in northern Kentucky at one point had 300 mobile units. We would like not to have 300 mobile units. That keeps me up, the thought of that and the security of mobile units vs. a school. We have a lot of work to do to prepare for that.”
4. How do you deal with stress?
“As superintendent, when you get to this position, you have learned to take a lot of things in stride. Most individuals have been a principal or a director and you have been in the public eye before. You get a lot of exercise and personally, for me, I do a lot of praying on a regular basis. But the biggest thing is you utilize the resources you have around you. We have incredible chiefs in our district, our chief operations officer and chief academic officer, and then our directors. You surround yourself with individuals who as a group can make great things happen for students.”
5. Is Hardin County Schools experiencing staff shortages?
“We are incredibly fortunate—we have a full staff in our transportation department. We have all of our routes covered. We do a lot of recruiting for bus drivers all year long.
“We are definitely feeling the teacher shortage. We still have positions open right now. When you start talking about low incidence, which is a unit for students with high levels of need, we don’t have as many teachers going in that field and then high school math and science. I believe last year one of our major universities only had one individual going into high school math.”
6. How are you filling those gaps?
“We’ve had to be strategic and creative. We have teachers who are doing a live stream to another classroom. There’s a teacher in there but it’s not a certified math teacher. We are paying that [livestream] teacher additional funds for the extra papers they will have to grade.
“We have a grow-your-own program. Our high school students who are interested in becoming teachers, we are currently paying one-third of their tuition to a college, up to $350 per credit hour. That has really increased the number of our students who are going into education, and we have a few of those who want to go into that early childhood pathway.
“We also have a grow-your-own for paraprofessionals and that has been an amazing program. We have assistants who have been in the classroom for 15 years and they have seen the best instructional practices. They are really prepared to become a teacher.
“The additional thing we’re doing is we’re having our students take the Praxis, which is the required test here in Kentucky before you can become a certified teacher. We are having those students take Praxis right after they leave high school because the content areas, they will probably never be at the readiness level that they are when they leave high school. After four years of college, you have forgotten a lot of what you’ve learned in high school, which is necessary to pass that test. We assist those students by paying for that Praxis in high school. We had nine students take the Praxis and all of them passed at the end of high school.”
7. How do you describe your leadership philosophy?
“My leadership is really about respect, and respect for every individual who comes into your district—your parents, your students, your bus drivers, your custodians, buildings and grounds—just respect and appreciation for what each person brings to the table. There is no position that is more or less important; there is no student who is more or less important.”